Organic. Artisanal. Handmade. There are countless terms applied to food and beverages, some of which have clear meanings while others are more nebulous. Add “natural” to the list. This term has become mainstream in the wine world over the past decade, as winemakers embrace low-intervention production methods and consumers look for healthier alternatives to their favorite products. But what is natural wine, exactly, and is it really healthier than conventional wine?
WHAT IS NATURAL WINE?
Though grapes are the backbone of wine, they are rarely the only ingredient in the bottle, as wines may contain more than 70 legally allowable additives. Outside of a few country-specific regulations, there’s not an overarching certification for natural wine, nor one agreed-upon definition. But at its core, “Natural wine is wine without crap in it,” writes Alice Feiring in “Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It.”
Natural wines should start with organic grapes, and once production begins, nothing should be added or removed. That means no pesticides or preservatives, outside of possibly some sulfites — a byproduct of fermentation and a natural preservative. But the sulfites found in natural wines are usually about 1/10 of what’s contained in conventional wines.
Natural wines are less adulterated and therefore a closer representation of the raw ingredients that go into the bottle. This doesn’t inherently make them taste better or worse; it’s simply a traditional way of making wine that has found renewed favor in recent years. Today, you can find natural wines made all over the world, plus bars and stores that specialize in selling them.
IS NATURAL WINE HEALTHIER?
Natural wine is still an alcoholic beverage, so it contains the same risks as any other alcoholic drink. But people who are allergic to certain additives may find they tolerate natural wines better than the conventional variety.
The FDA estimates that about 1% of people in the United States are hypersensitive to sulfites. This number increases to 5% in individuals with asthma. If you fall into this category, you may benefit from drinking natural wine instead of conventional wine. Contrary to popular belief, those sulfites are probably not responsible for your hangover — that would be the alcohol — as sulfites are present in all manner of foods and beverages, including dried fruit, canned soups and packaged meats.
All wine contains polyphenols — micronutrients that naturally occur in plants and act as antioxidants. Natural wines may contain more of these compounds than conventional wines. Since natural wines are lower-intervention, they typically skip the fining process, which is used to clarify and stabilize wines. As a result, it’s likely more polyphenols remain in the final product. According to a study from the University of Pittsburgh, wines that minimize or avoid the fining process generally have higher levels of polyphenols, which can enhance the wine’s positive influence on health.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There’s no compelling health reason to put down your favorite glass of conventional wine and replace it with natural wine. But, the latter should contain fewer pesticides and herbicides, as well as fewer additives, like sulfites. This lighter touch during the production process may expose your body to fewer substances, some of which could potentially be harmful, particularly if you’re allergic to one of the additives. If you want to explore the natural wines category, go for it. But whatever you choose to drink, be sure to do so in moderation.
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